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International Women in Engineering Day: The women powering Northern Ireland’s cleaner energy future

  • Today is International Women in Engineering Day, at the end of a week of which Northern Ireland held its first Energy Summit at the ICC Belfast, welcoming 400 energy leaders from home and abroad to discuss the pathway to meeting the region’s ambitious energy goals.

    To mark the occasion, Sync NI sat down with three young women powering Northern Ireland’s cleaner energy future. Rebecca Russell, Francesca McKee and Catriona Kelly are Graduate Engineers at SONI, Northern Ireland’s electricity grid operator.

    In addition to running the electricity grid in the present, SONI also has the responsibility of upgrading the grid so it can facilitate more renewable energy in the future.

    Rebecca Russell is a graduate from Queen’s University Belfast with a Master’s Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Although Rebecca always had an analytical mind and enjoyed trying to solve problems, it wasn’t until she was about to leave school that her interest in engineering fully developed.

    “In school I got involved in various science and engineering-based projects which allowed me to develop an interest in engineering. But I completed a 6-week placement in a local power engineering company when I was 17 and this really piqued my interest and desire to go into the power industry. I realised the importance of this sector and the challenges that would soon be faced in developing a more environmentally friendly energy system.” 

    Rebecca is in her final year of SONI’s graduate scheme and is currently placed in the Infrastructure and Projects Team - the team responsible for managing upgrades to the grid. Day-to-day she manages various projects through the pre-construction stages right through to construction and energisation. She also carries out other important tasks such budget management, internal governance reviews and co-ordinates updates and developments with a wide range of stakeholders. 

    “I chose to be involved in this team for my final rotation to develop my project management skills, which is important in engineering, and learn about a completely different side of the business.”

    Catriona Kelly also qualified from Queen’s University Belfast with Master’s Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Like Rebecca, Catriona was always fascinated by how things worked and enjoyed maths and physics at school. However, her decision to embark on a career in engineering had other motivations.

    “I’ve been very passionate about climate change for as long as I can remember, so it’s interesting how my career has led me to a place where I can now use my knowledge to work on projects that will help us meet our 2030 climate targets.”

    Catriona works within the Connections team at SONI, where she assesses the technical, safety and network stability credentials of projects which are seeking to connect to the grid to either generate electricity or use it.

    “I really enjoy how varied my work is, as each study poses new challenges and that has given me the ability to develop a really good understanding of our network and its complexities. I spend the majority of my time using different software tools for analysis and programming my own scripts to automate processes, but I also have the opportunity to go on site visits which means there is a nice good variety in my role.”

    Francesca McKee graduated with a Master’s Degree in Energy Storage from Ulster University. It was Francesca’s love of the environment and the importance of decarbonising the energy system to protect its future which meant a career as an energy engineer was the obvious choice.

    Francesca works in SONI’s System Operations team, the team that “keeps the lights on” as she describes. The System Operations team manages the running of the electricity grid in real time. In addition to managing the planned outage schedule to allow important maintenance work to take place on the grid, Francesca is also responsible for a range of technical studies.

    “I’m also involved in our emergency planning and managing emergency control centre testing – this is really interesting because it is absolutely essential for running the electricity grid safely and reliably for consumers across Northern Ireland. Each day is different which is really interesting and you feel like you are playing your part in keeping the lights on.”

    Asked about their message for other women considering a career in engineering, a profession where women are often under-represented, they agreed that they should be unafraid to pursue their dream career. However, they each acknowledged that more work needed to be done in careers education to break stereotypes surrounding the profession and ensure engineering is encouraged with younger girls who demonstrate a passion for the subject.

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